April 12, 2021

CHEN | Imposter Syndrome 101

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It was my sophomore year of high school.  Worries about college applications had just barely come in and the hormone influxes were running high. Back then, I was still able to wake up at six in the morning and eat three meals a day, and my heftiest anxiety was about if my video submission to run for junior officer of Science National Honor Society would make the cut. The day after I had submitted it and let it slip to someone that I was in the running, a peer asked me if I was smart enough to run.

I was stunned, but felt three main emotions. First, disbelief in her ability to ask me that out loud. Second, the urge to show her my report cards and pre-ACT score. And third, doubt. Maybe it was true, I was nothing compared to the “AP Chemistry and AP Calculus BC in sophomore year” gods. 

Outwardly, I went with my third reaction and laughed off her comment. But this small doubt still paid its rent in the back of my mind. 

This feeling was easily batted down throughout all of high school, but consistently festered its way towards its peak in my freshman year of college. I was being brushed off in math discussion, forced into classrooms full of students who learned their first programming language in middle school and fed backhanded compliments about how my wits enabled me to overlook working hard. What was once a small doubt became a serious string of thoughts and mental breakdowns where my self-guilt felt commonplace — How did I get here? I don’t deserve to be here. 

At the time, I couldn’t exactly put how I was feeling into words — until I realized that it was so common among individuals that it had its own name: imposter syndrome. 

Fast forward to more than a year later, and the degree to which these feelings overtook my brain seem foreign to me now. Throughout freshman year, I had participated in extensive discussions within clubs (shoutout to Women in Computing at Cornell) and rant sessions with friends that allowed me to connect with others over this topic. There’s also a mental strengthening and change of mindset that often occurs during your first year of college. I wouldn’t say that I’ve completely overcome imposter syndrome just yet, but I’ve at least been able to make sense of it and understand where the initial doubts stemmed from. I call this Imposter Syndrome 101. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this phenomenon or haven’t made the phrase-to-feeling connection yet, imposter syndrome is when one doubts their own abilities despite having the experience to back them up. It leads to high-achieving students feeling like frauds in their place on campus, and often affects women and underrepresented minorities harder

Whether the onset of imposter syndrome was the product of a slow manifestation or a sudden influx of doubts, they are all attributed to you being in a place of discomfort. It’s tough to understand or even justify the path that led you to where you are, or why you’re able to step foot on this campus alongside everyone else.

These thoughts are harmful and result in a painful cycle. First handedly, I’ve seen too much self-rejection before an application is even touched. Cornell students will psych themselves out before even applying for a club or internship because they themselves believe that they do not deserve it. The importance of supporting another student in their endeavors is underestimated — a lot of people just need a single push from that one supporter. 

Imposter syndrome can’t be whisked away by the click of a button or a skim through of a column. I came to realize that it’s also not binary — it’s a spectrum. The presence of the nagging thoughts constantly fluctuates, similar to how one’s mood is never consistent. All that counts is that your overall trend and center is hopefully improving.

For anyone struggling with coming to terms with your accomplishments and your place on this campus, curb the self-rejection first. No matter how crude, don’t do clubs and internships the favor of filtering out candidates for them. If you have a mild interest in any role or organization, throw your resume at them and see what happens. Even if you get rejected, you have still gained experience. Although it’s hard to see, these incidents will always be a win-win situation.

Second: talk about it. By discussing these feelings and issues with others, you will realize that they are more common than you thought. Get to the root of the issue so it doesn’t feel foreign anymore.  Being able to relate over these experiences with friends or organizations give leeway for you to reflect on why you feel a certain way. Instead of letting the guilt build up inside, having a personal cheerleader (or several) to bat away at the doubts comes in handy. If you’re not able to hype yourself up just yet, a couple of friends can do the trick for you for the time being. 

You don’t need to get to a point where you wake up everyday absolutely sure of how much you deserve to be in the place that you are. But as long as you’re able to remind yourself of that fact every once in a while and curb the fluctuation a little bit, that’s all one can ask for in a consistent struggle. 


Jonna Chen is a sophomore in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at jc2627@cornell.edu. jonna.write() runs every other Monday this semester.